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At the Bottom of Every Bottle a Saint Speaks

By Matt DeBenedictis ~

The following is from a column I write for an online Atlanta magazine called Atlanta is Burning. The column, From Pastor to Bastard, details tales from my past as a pastor and now dealing with non-belief while living in the Southern bible belt. I've always enjoyed this site, even though it has been some time since I came to it, as it had a very important role in my de-faithing. Thank you for your time.

"Just let loose,” the head pastor (him) said to the assistant pastor (me). The words fell down much like a decree from a sovereign lawmaker; a pastor’s words thrust themselves onto their staff with an oracle of power. They are to be followed to the letter and with little question… well, questions can be encouraged as questions lead to discussions and those lengthy devices lead to good sermons.

Pastors need people for this very reason. Without people they are merely presenting book pitches to an audience every week. Over a year into building a church that worked locally and could be admired nationally my fatigue had become fully visible and undeniable. I was the skin stained mascara of a party girl left curbside at 3am. There was no denying my decaying state. It was time to laugh or just enjoy the inevitable crash.

In the middle of a staff retreat within a corner of the rusty Christian flag admired Midwest my only to-do-list was to relax, have some fun, and just let the stress melt away. I chose to let it drip out my pours through liquor sweats. The night began with a full staff dinner: the pastors, the paid, the volunteers – all the people that make a church a real breathing device.

I had a rhythmic method to my drinking, much like the rhythm method used to avoid getting pregnant, and much like it the end result was guaranteed unpredictability. Green domestic bottles were chased by redheaded sluts, the cheap then the sweetness. I lost count of my rounds somewhere after the third, which by this time the fun was being moved back to the hotel, but not before a stop to get snacks and more aged Holy Spirit in a bottle.

I put my drink consuming method to bed as I buddied up with my own over-sized bottle of whiskey. I resided in a chair watching everyone smile, laugh, and joke in our half priced, half off the highway hotel. I sized everyone up as if a massive fight in the park was about to happen and I would need to know who would have my back and who’s back I would need to stab. These were the type of fevered thoughts that careen through a mind when liquor, anger, and a need to sleep have settled in for the long haul. I conjoined with my chair to create a slumping machine. Cartoon drunk had settled in for most of the staff causing an eruption into a game of I Never.

Secrets were revealed as everyone (aside from the senior pastor) drank and raised their hands exposing the silly and dark that nestled within their lives. One couple discovered an STD might be in play, others found out friends would sell their shame for the laugh of the guilty raised hand and quick shot that follows. I made all my questions sultry, or at least the drunk me believe he did, out of a hope one of the blushing tipsy interns would let me slide in for a sinless fuck.

I slept alone that night, half on the floor in an incubated curl around the toilet. I counted out my vomits laughing with each one like I had won an award and was waiting for someone to ask me if I was going to go to Disneyland. I was told I yelled out “23″ at the tile and the cancer colored wallpaper. An imaginary cheer applauded me as my face slid off the bowl into vomit that never quite made it to its intended destination. I was the Michael Jordan of godly puking who only had a five-day hangover as a medal.

On the retreat I met one of the most revered and talked-about ministers that has ever lived. We shook hands and my brain couldn’t find the switch to the end the roller coaster. When can I relax again, I thought. Everything was turning serious and who wants serious when you just saw everyone be themselves for the first time in a year.

“A pastor is a leader by bringing God’s voice to his people,” someone said.

“You’ll know God’s voice when you hear it.”

“In God’s voice is our comfort.”

“Stop asking questions and you’ll hear Him,” every pastor I ever met told me that.

Each time someone one else uttered about the whispers of the mighty above I could only cringe, wondering if there was an escape hatch waiting for me before we came back south to Atlanta. The only voice I ever heard was in my own inflection, somehow always backing the emotions of the moment. The same voice that told me God was real and to devote my pre-driver license life to a pastoral service was the same that crept in quietly one day, whispering, “You’re a bastard and its time to say goodbye.”

I’ve toured the country speaking on more pulpits than I can every truly understand but when I stare into the eyes of hindsight, and though I’ve lost memory of every bible verse I every preached on, there’s one thing I can say: There’s a saint that stares back at the bottom of every bottle, not ordained and holy only in the attempts to improve, this voice knows you best and it’s best not to ignore it.